The legal and regulatory minefield surrounding the transportation of lithium batteries is about as complicated as the substance itself. Safe shipment of products classified as dangerous goods largely depends on the involvement and cooperation of all the stakeholders in the supply chain. Is the introduction of supplementary regulations or an outright ban good for the industry?
Hoverboards, the two-wheeled self-balancing motorised boards, was one of the most sought-after toy at Christmas last year but have been the subject of a series of safety warnings around the world because of fires caused by faulty charges. Igniting its popularity were celebrities like Justin Bieber, Kendal Jenner, Skrillex and Nick Jonas who were among the first ones to introduce this toy to the masses through social media. Ebay reportedly sold more than 5,000 units on Black Friday last year and claims to have sold one hoverboard every 12 seconds on Cyber Monday.
However, following multiple reports of hoverboard fires caused by faulty batteries, many airlines have stopped passengers from taking the personal transporter on board. Ahead of his New Year vacation, Hollywood actor Russel Crowe was not allowed to board a Virgin Australia flight with his children as they were carrying hoverboards with them. The devices have started fires in nine states, and have reportedly burst into flames under riders’ feet.
Delta, United and American airlines, known collectively as the “Big 3,” announced hoverboard bans ahead of the holiday season in December 2015 when 38 million passengers were expected to take flights. Delta said in a statement that many boards run on powerful lithium-ion batteries above 160 watts, the maximum permitted by law on planes. Not all hoverboards are labeled accurately, so airlines can’t determine whether they can be safely taken aboard. While occurrences are uncommon, these batteries can spontaneously overheat and pose a fire hazard risk.
Several international airlines, including British Airways, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand, have newly implemented hoverboard bans in place. Tampa International, Charleston International and Saint Paul International Airport Minneapolis are among a growing number of airports reminding passengers to leave their hoverboards at home. The issue has brought the transport of dangerous goods to the forefront again, with lithium batteries remaining a controversial subject.
The latest development reeling the transport of dangerous goods in the air cargo industry is the recent ban on the carriage of lithium-ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft by The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), while it develops a new packaging standard for the rechargeable batteries used in many consumer devices. ICAO is a UN specialised agency that manages the administration and governance of the Convention on International Civil Aviation.
With effect from April 2016, the prohibition applies to bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries on passenger aircraft, but not to the consumer devices used by passengers or crew. Many passenger airlines have already opted not to accept such shipments.
While the majority of lithium-ion batteries are transported on cargo ships, about 30 percent are still delivered by air. Many travel in the holds of passenger aircraft rather than in dedicated cargo planes. The US Federal Aviation Administration estimates that air carriers who transport batteries in bulk to the US also carry about 26 million passengers a year.
Tests by aviation bodies have established that lithium-ion batteries can self-ignite and burn with a heat of about 600C – close to the melting point of the aluminium used in the superstructure of many aircraft. Separate tests have also established that overheated batteries can give off fumes that, if they build up, can lead to explosions that knock out onboard fire suppression systems letting the fires burn uncontrolled. The tests led Boeing and Airbus to declare in 2015 that continuing to ship lithium-ion batteries in bulk was “an unacceptable risk”.
Commenting on the recent ban by ICAO, David Brennan, IATA’s assistant director for Cargo Safety and Standards said, “IATA did not support the proposal to prohibit the carriage of lithium ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft as we believed that the other changes; the requirements for lithium ion batteries to be at no more than 30 percent state of charge, and the restriction to no more than one package of Section II lithium ion batteries, achieved an acceptable level of safety for passenger aircraft. However, as the ICAO Council has made the decision to prohibit their carriage on passenger aircraft, we have been focusing on communicating the changes to the regulations so that the industry can comply.”
However, when speaking of undeclared battery shipments or low-quality counterfeits, stricter rules and regulations is not the answer, asserts Brennan. We just need the existing regulations to be properly enforced. This is an area that IATA has been lobbying on for some time. Governments must understand that they have a responsibility in ensuring a safe air transport system, and therefore must undertake appropriate oversight and surveillance of shippers, and where necessary take enforcement action against shippers that fail to comply.
Meanwhile IATA is working with a number of organisations, including Portable Rechargeable Battery Association (PRBA) and Recharge, which is a European association of battery and equipment manufacturers, and other organisations to promote awareness of the regulations applicable to the air transport of lithium batteries. IATA works with these bodies to lobby governments on the need for oversight and enforcement as well as to conduct outreach to industry, including to e-commerce providers, post offices and consumers to try and ensure that all parties are aware of the regulations applicable to the transport of lithium batteries and devices with lithium batteries installed.
Brennan stresses on the importance of training when handling dangerous goods in ensuring a safe air transport supply chain. The air transport regulations require that all parties involved in the preparation and offering of the dangerous goods for air transport must have received and must maintain appropriate dangerous goods training. The dangerous goods training requirements then apply to all parties in the supply chain that handle and process cargo. This includes personnel employed by freight forwarders, ground handling agents and airlines.
Brennan says the ban on the carriage of lithium ion batteries as cargo on passenger aircraft will have a significant impact on the ability of business to be able to get their lithium ion batteries to their customers. “We have had a number of emails from medical device manufacturers and manufacturers of lithium ion batteries for medical devices seeking relief for their products because of the difficulty in moving lithium ion batteries just on cargo aircraft.”
However, Ami Baram, DGR Supervisor and Ground Operations Quality Assurance, CAL Cargo, has a different take on the same. He says stricter regulations may result in some shipments being transported via sea, but it also means safer flights. “In addition, there is actually an opportunity here for cargo operators, since this will be a commodity that can fly only on freighters, more DG business will be directed to freighters instead of passenger flights.”
Lithium ion batteries as dangerous goods have three levels of declarations IA/IB/Section II. Section II refers to lithium ion batteries that don’t need a DG declaration and therefore don’t need such tight regulation. “What happens is that often we don’t even know that these lithium batteries are on board, which is a huge risk and has caused accidents. The information is so unclear that often even the shipper doesn’t know what is on board. Our challenge is to find and implement new solutions that will reduce the risk to a manageable level at an affordable cost that will leave air freight as an economically viable option,” explains Baram.
CAL is an authorised transporter of all nine classes of dangerous goods including explosives, gases, flammable liquids & solids, oxidizing substances, toxic and infectious substances, radioactive material, corrosives and other dangerous goods. “CAL responds to Section II as DG, this means we do a checklist, demand that it’s registered on No-TOC and we use our own limitations. Lithium/Metal batteries are placed on main deck, Lithium ion batteries UN3480 are transported on lower deck. This enables better fire extinguishing precautions,” adds Baram.
It’s not just bulk shipments of lithium batteries that need to be taken care of when in air. Quite recently, on an Alaska Airlines flight from Washington state to Hawaii, eight-inch flames started shooting from a passenger’s iPhone 6. As soon as Anna Crail, the passenger on board, saw the flames leaping from the phone, she flipped the burning handset off her tray table and onto the floor but it got under someone’s seat, post which the flames grew even higher.
Thankfully for Crail and the other 162 passengers on board, the crew managed to quickly contain the fire before things went out of control. It’s not yet known what caused the incident, but the findings of other investigations into similar fires suggest the phone’s lithium-ion battery will be carefully examined by the Federal Aviation Administration’s investigating team.
Damaged or dodgy lithium-ion batteries are a serious concern for airlines. Faulty units that powered part of Boeing’s state-of-the-art Dreamliner plane caused several fires in 2013, forcing aviation authorities around the world to ground the plane for several months until a redesigned battery could be fitted.
With most of our gadgets using lithium-ion batteries, airlines have long banned passengers from packing devices into checked baggage, preferring to have them in the cabin where, in the rare event of a fire, a situation can be quickly spotted and dealt with.
Devices containing lithium batteries such as cellphones, laptops, medical equipments and hoverboards have had a history of catching fire due to overheating. It’s easy to see how that kind of a glitch could prove lethal on an aircraft!